Category Archives: Bird Behaviour

The Trip of a Lifetime – Southern Alberta

Sorry for not posting for a while, I’ve been going through the multiple thousand photos from this trip, in addition to keeping up my birding! This may be a long post, so if you skip through it, I totally understand.

My sister was off to Bible Camp for a week, and my Mum and brother were headed to BC with friends. This left me and my Dad with a week alone, and a steady stream of interesting birds being reported from across the province, mainly in the far South-East. McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Lark Sparrows and Buntings to name a few. Combine the two, and you get a four day birding trip around Alberta with few of the usual hindrances – time being the main one. And so it was that we set out on Monday the 18th of July for the trip of a lifetime.

Our first stop (we hoped) was just outside of Calgary for a Black-headed Grosbeak. This didn’t come off, however, so we birded the area for a while before driving off to Lethbridge. The biggest surprise was the number and boldness of young Soras. Almost 20 foraged alongside Wilson’s Snipe and Black Terns in a small streambed.

Sora-chicks

Two young Soras in the sparse grass at the edge of the gulley.

Red-winged Blackbirds were also in full evidence, feeding their young, and filling the reedbeds with their throaty calls.

Red-winged Blackbird w-food-4307

Red-winged Blackbird with insect

Reaching Lethbridge without trouble, we settled into our motel and fell into a restless sleep (on my part at least). The next day, we rose early and, having filled our go-mugs with the hotel coffee, set out towards Pakowki Lake. Six White-faced Ibis were nice additions on the drive there, but the real highlights came hidden among over 200 Horned Larks – two of the fleeing birds revealed white tails marked by a black triangle – Chestnut-collared Longspurs! Almost at the lake, the cherry on the cake sat 100 metres from a Ferruginous Hawk in the form of a Grasshopper Sparrow. Two lifers already, and it was only ten AM!

GRSP

Spotting the diminutive Grasshopper Sparrow from the road and having it sit in the open long enough to ID it proved to be tough work.

Pakowki Lake was actually pretty bare, with a handful of Willets, some Marbled Godwits and many pairs of Eared Grebes being the most notable species.

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe

Wandering down a vacant road, we were stopped by an inquisitive rancher who, quite naturally, wanted to know who we were and why we were on his land. As it turned out, we were the second birding car he had met on his way out! We soon caught up to the other vehicle, and had a brief conversation with the owners, who we knew. While we talked, a large flock including Vesper Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, and life-birds McCown’s Longspurs engulfed us before continuing their passage down the gravel road.

CCLO

Male Chestnut-collared Longspur transitioning to non-breeding plumage

VESP

Vesper Sparrow

We had just enough time to drive over to Wild Horse (the way border crossing between Alberta and the US) before heading back up to Medicine Hat where we would spend the night. Wild Horse was supposed to be good territory for Lark Buntings, both Longspurs and Baird’s Sparrow. The first thing we saw, however, was a common yet pretty bird with its fledglings. Western Kingbirds!

Western Kingbirds

“Now kids, smile for the camera man”

It didn’t take long to find the Lark Buntings – a large flock, perhaps 75 in number fed among the fields near the crossing. Baird’s Sparrow was found by pure chance – we pulled over to photograph a Lark Bunting, and it popped up from the grass right beside us!

LAGR

Male Lark Bunting

The day was progressing quickly, and we wanted to sleep in Medicine Hat that night, so the car swung into a more heavily populated road (almost six cars every ten minutes – counts as a well-used motor-way down there). Stopping at an almost empty Cypress Hills Provincial Park, we found a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but little else. Immediately afterwards, however… A long-winged, pale shaped bird tossed it’s body across a roadside field, fluttering, first one wing up, then the other. It banked, and there was no doubt about it. A Short-eared Owl!

My nemesis bird, the Short-eared Owl has avoided me on many occasions, sometimes by miles, sometimes by hours. I’ve spent countless fruitless trips at dusk among the Alberta prairies, searching for this elusive bird to no avail.  So imagine my surprise when this first amazing discovery was followed by six more – four of them immature!

Short-eared Owlet

We made it to Medicine Hat in total darkness, and scouted around for a place to sleep for a while before finally crashing into bed. From Medicine Hat, we would continue our journey North, almost reaching Edmonton before dipping back down to Canmore on Thursday night. That part of the trip remains to be chronicled, however, so watch for a second post soon!

Canmore Spring Bird Walk June 18th

The last of the Spring Bird Walks started cool, with the sun just peeking through the clouds. Arriving early at the meeting place, I was fortunate enough to see a Great Blue Heron fly-by – not a common sight there. We headed down the boardwalk, not seeing much but hearing a lot. Waterfowl were in short supply, with only a few Mallards to count, but it was made up for by the now flying owlets.

Great-horned Owl

Great-horned Owl

Two owlets and the female were on the path side of the creek, and the owlets put on a show for us for some time. They bounced around in the branches, unscared of the humans and in full view before working up the courage to fly back across the creek.GHOWSinging from the same perch as always sat a male Yellow Warbler, and two Blue Jays offered views from a few feet away. There were plenty of swallows at Spring Creek, and a winnowing Wilson’s Snipe cam crashing down into the marsh near us.

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe

That concludes the series of walks on the boardwalk for this spring, but stay tuned for the walks I’ll be leading in late August and September, when we’ll hope for warblers, finches and hawks among others.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler from last September

Thanks for coming out, everyone, and I hope to see you in the fall!

You can read the rest of the Canmore Spring Bird Walk posts here:

May Seventh

May Twenty-first

June Fourth

The Great Canadian Birdathon 2017 (Day One)

Ten days ago today,  the team Saw-it Owls was kicking off their Great Canadian Birdathon. Starting at a Purple Martin colony in Chestermere, we headed to Weed Lake, then down to Carburn Park. We were starting at the Martin colony because, for the first time in my memory, the Peregrine Falcons were not nesting at the University. With two scopes, three cameras and four pair of binoculars, we set out. Purple Martins are not hard to find at their homes, and we were not disappointed, with nine individuals showing for us.

Purple Martin

Male Purple Martin

Weed Lake is usually a very good place for shorebirds, but the water levels are high this spring, and we only identified the disappointing tally of 3 shorebirds not seen anywhere else. Black-bellied Plovers were the highlights, but a Black-crowned Night-Heron flyover was a nice accompaniment to a conservative estimate of 5000 Franklin’s Gulls, among which rested a single Bonaparte’s Gull.

Franklin's Gull

Franklin’s Gulls

Carburn Park was a good stop, throwing up a California Gull, American White Pelican and House Wrens. We also saw Western Wood-Pewees, a Belted Kingfisher and three Bank Swallows. It was a good thing too, as South Glenmore Park was barren of birds, excepting some out on the reservoir.

American White Pelicans

Preening session!

Heading out of the city, we took a short stop where someone had seen a Golden-crowned Sparrow recently. We missed the sparrow, but there was a lucky Western Tanager and a Tennessee Warbler.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

We dined in Cochrane, then headed out to Horse Creek Road Marshes. Sometimes tough to find, these marshes are a brilliantly consistent place for Yellow Rails, of which we heard 3. Nelson’s Sparrows were absent, but the buzzy call of a Le Conte’s Sparrow rang out three times. We of course, were 12 hours too early for the Sedge Wren reported there the next day.

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe are a common sight at HCR marshes.

That pretty much ended the first half of the 24 hours, as we saw little on the return drive via Sibbald Creek Trail. That is also the end of this post, but stay tuned for the second half from Saturday in the Bow Valley! There is still time to donate to this important cause, so please click this link to see my Birdathon page. Thank you!

Feathers on Friday – Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse males face off

A few photos for this Feathers on Friday. Sharp-tailed Grouse from the lek! They were very tolerant of the blind, coming within ten feet of us, so though the day was overcast, I managed to extract some nice photos. The males would hold their wings out, turn in a circle and stamp their feet very quickly while popping their purple air sacs.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse male

I’d seen Sharp-tailed Grouse once before, but that was distant, and of course, the males weren’t displaying, so this was quite an experiance. We had to be settled in the blind an hour beforee sunrise, which meant a 3:30 start from our hotel (it would have been 1:00 AM from home).

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse male

The females were in short supply, and were constantly being chased around by hopeful males.

Sharp-tailed Grouse female

There were only three or four females compared to the 30 odd males.

All in all, a brilliant way to spend Mothers Day!

Canmore Spring Bird Walk May 21st

The second of my bi-monthly Spring Bird Walks on Policeman’s Creek started at 7:30 AM on Sunday May 21st, the day after the second half of the Great Canadian Birdathon. The sun was long up, and the day was turning out to be pleasantly warm. 21 participants correlated with the date, and was a large enough number to split into two groups, one headed upstream to the Spurline Trail, and the other moving downstream to the Great-horned Owl nest.

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls

If you don’t know where it is, the nest is quite well hidden. There have been many new birds coming in since the last walk, including Spotted Sandpipers, Sora and Yellow Warblers, and between the two groups we totalled 38 species. Coming so soon after the Birdathon, I was more than a little tired, which is why my post is out so late – I slept until 9:30 today, and replacing the deck is a time consuming job. Before the walk had even started, we heard Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird and White-crowned Sparrow among others, all species we would go on to see.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

The group headed to Spurline did well, seeing three Clark’s Nutcrackers and a Solitary Sandpiper, while the downstream crew got good views of the four visible owls, Yellow Warblers, Lincoln’s Sparrows and Violet-green Swallows. Rare for the area was a pair of Common Grackles seen after most people had departed.

Clark's Nutcracker

A Clark’s Nutcracker taken at our feeders.

The eBird checklist is here, for anybody interested. If anyone wants to come out to our next walk, it is on June 4th at 7:30 AM (meet at 7:15) at the Big Head on Canmore’s main or 8th Street. See you then!

See previous post here: Canmore Spring Bird Walk May 7th.

Perplexing Plumage: Lincoln’s or Song?

Lincoln’s and Song Sparrows are both common birds in Southern Alberta, and indeed in many places across Canada, but to many people, the two can be tough to differentiate without hearing them singing. They are both generally small, brown birds with a streaked breast. They both have grey and brown striped heads with a white throat and pink legs.

Song Sparrow

So how do you tell them apart? Well, some people would call attention to the Lincoln’s slight crest and (sometimes hidden) white eye-ring. Others might mention the Song Sparrow’s dark breast spot and long, rounded tail. These are all good factors to consider when attempting to identify one, but not, to my eye, the most useful, or even the most obvious.

In my opinion, the best thing there is to tell a Lincoln’s from a Song is the overall color scheme. Song Sparrows are dark brown, and heavy streaking and the dark malar stripe both add to the feeling of a dark bird, as the streaking blocks the pale breast, and the malar stripe subdues the white of the throat.  Lincoln’s don’t have a malar stripe, and their streaking is lighter and much finer. Their backs are pale brown, and there is a heavy buff wash across their breast.

Wet immature Lincoln’s Sparrow

The two differ in habitat as well, though there is much overlap. Where the Lincoln’s prefers marshes and riparian thickets (often in mountainous regions), the Song Sparrow turns up in denser vegetation along watercourses, marshes and wet fields. In both cases, the males sing from prominent perches while the females remain highly secretive, and the Lincoln’s females even leave the nest by ‘mouse-running’ along the ground.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

A final clue can be found at the nest site – Song Sparrows jointly hold the dubious honor of the most common Cowbird host with Yellow Warbler, whereas Lincoln’s are almost never prey to such parasitism.

To sum it up:SONG SPARROW
(Melospiza melodia)
LINCOLN'S SPARROW
(Melospiza lincolnii)
Key differences on the head:Dark malar stripe, notably round head shape.White eye-ring and crested head.
Key differences on the body:Darker overall, note dark breast spot, highly variable but always present heavy streaking.Lighter overall, with light, fine streaks, heavy buff wash (may extend to back)
Other notable differences in plumage and structure:Longer, rounded tail, occasionally bigger than Lincoln's.Short, square tail. less bulky than Song, even when equal sizes.
Habitat & Habits:Wet meadows, marshes, watercourse edges. Will come to feeders in winter.Bogs, marshes, riparian thickets usually in mountainous areas. Shyer than Song.
Range:Common across lower 48 states and all Canadian provinces. Regular on South-western coast of Alaska.Common across Canada and mid-western States as well as all southern states and Alaska.
Notes:Very common Cowbird host. Monogamous except when females outnumber males. Most varied bird in North America with 31 subspecies.Rarely parasitized. Assumed monogamous, but not confirmed.

Canmore Spring Bird Walk May 7th

Townend's Warbler

A Townsend’s Warbler I took several years ago on the Banff Bird Walk

Banff Community Bird Walks are a well known series of Saturday morning walks led at the Cave and Basin in Banff. They are free to attend, and participant may see anywhere between 20 and 40 species, depending on the time of year. It came as a great surprise to me, therefore, to learn (when I started birding) that there were no similar events run in Canmore, where 25-30 species is a regular count for me in an hour.

So I have started the Canmore Spring Bird Walks, led every other Sunday morning (so people can still attend the Banff one) from 7:30 – 9:30 am. My local hotspot, the Canmore Boardwalk, is very productive, and has this year alone turned up such rarities as an Eastern Pheobe on April 7th and a Hammond’s Flycatcher on April 26th. It has 114 species seen one it, (of which I have seen 104) and continues to show more every year.

Hammond's Flycatcher

Hammond’s Flycatcher

The first Canmore Bird Walk was yesterday, May 7th. I woke up to the ever unpleasent presence of a Rockies spring snow – heavy, cold, and above all, wet. Despairing for participants, I pulled on my heavy coat and tried unsuccesfully to protect my brand new camera and lense from the ferocious weather (at the end of the day, I would rejoice in the fact that I had chosen the Canon EOS 80D, as its excellent weather-proofing proved invaluable). As it turned out, my worrying was unjustified, with 8 people coming out that morning to see the Boardwalk’s first ever Solitary Sandpiper, and the largest flock of warblers I have ever seen – over 200 Yellow-rumped Warblers swarmed one section.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle x Audubon's)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle x Audubon’s)

Other highlights included a male Blue-winged Teal, Chipping Sparrow, and a Great-horned Owl. All in all, it went well, and hopefully on our next walk we will have considerably better weather. By then we can expect Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers, and Soras to be back in force. Thanks to everybody who came out yesterday, and I hope to see anyone who’s interested on May 21st, 7:20 at Canmore’s famous Big Head.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

And Let Birds Fill The Sky – If The Wind Isn’t Too Strong

We had puzzled over where to go during the spring break, as the suite that our friends owned in Kimberly had been sold. I wanted birds, my Mom needed ttranquillity and my Dad didn’t want to drive too far. The kids didn’t care – as long as there were rocks, trees, or snow to play on, they were fine. Flip-flopping between Edmonton and Waterton National Park, we eventually settled on the latter (though I now wish we had gone to south eastern Hanna – there was an Alberta first Common Crane there!).

During the four hour long drive, I observed many dabbling ducks and hawks, but little else. Briefly stopping over at Frank Lake, we found that it is bursting into Spring, supporting Greater and Lesser Scaups, Gadwall, Ruddy Duck and four Red-breasted Mergansers. I think that the male Red-breasted Merganser is probably the most beautiful bird I’ve seen – which means something. Unfortunately, they were half a kilometre out, and we obtained no good photos.

Continuing to Waterton, we identified meadowlarks hawking from roadside poles and hawks hovering over the rolling meadows. When we eventually reached the diminutive hamlet of Waterton, I was surprised at the exact measure of solitude – there was only one shop open in the whole area! I do not believe that we saw more than 10 people the entire time.

Moose

A Moose we saw.

Waterton is very windy, with winter winds whistling through at an average 100 km per hour. Not enough to blow you over, but it can make it tough to hold your camera steady. Despite this, we manged to pick up quite a few species at the Hay Barnes Trail, an excellent short walk for anyone in the area. There is a theory that the first five minutes after you get somewhere are the best, and this was hardly disputed when an adult Prairie Falcon skimmed the long, waving grasses within a minute of our arrival. It alighted on a tall aspen and surveyed the surrounding fields. It took off a second later, joining a high-flying Red-tailed Hawk. However, as is often the case in these things, the fragile peace between the two raptors was broken when a Common Raven came hurtling out of the sky at the Hawk. The falcon joined in, and soon all three had disappeared over the hilly horizon.

A distant shot of the three birds – Raven on top, Red-tail below, and Prairie Falcon to the left.

The Waterfall

The Waterfall – click to see whole photo.

Upon our return to Waterton, we found three American Dippers broadcasting their songs by bouncing them off the stony cliffs by the waterfall. The other treasures occurred during the 50 km drive between Waterton and Pincher Creek, which we completed three or four times. Great-horned Owls, Northern Harriers and Golden Eagles supplemented the Red-tailed Hawks, while countless Mountain Bluebirds sang from the fence line. Every once in a while, we saw some Sandhill Cranes or Red-winged Blackbirds.

Northern Harrier – male

Naturally, when we returned, we learned of the Western Bluebird, the Cassin’s Finch, and that blasted bird, my nemesis, the Short-eared Owl that had been seen. Why oh why must those annoying owls insist on avoiding me? Oh well.

That’s all from me, but I’ll post more as migration continues. In the mean time, please consider donating to my Great Canadian Birdathon if you haven’t already. Thank you to all who have!

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes